By TALISA LARSON
In September 1964, Kaye Martin, a senior, walked through the tunnels with her head held high. The sound of her robe masked the whispering conversations of the students behind her, as they made their way to Kotska Theatre for the freshmen investiture, a ceremony to initiate the incoming class into the world of academia. Complete with a cap and gown, they pledged to seek truth, to leave behind bias and to accept responsibility as they began their studies at Mount Mary College.
Built in 1953, the theatre, along with the addition of Fidelis Hall, became a place of learning, community and mass for those living on campus. “In fact, everything involving the student body happened there,” Martin said. This is precisely why its name honors Mount Mary’s founder, Mother Mary Stanislaus Kotska.
Life reverberated within the walls of the theatre as children’s plays, orchestras and guest speakers visited Mount Mary.
“My time spent there as a speech and drama student was very special. Mrs. B, Mr. Sam and Mr. Torrance all [my professors] helped us make magic in that building. We had a children’s show each fall and they were the most fun,” Martin said. “The theatre would be filled with exciting youngsters who were touched by the magic world on stage. All of our scenery was created in the scene shop. In fact, the most difficult final I ever took in my four years at Mount Mary was the Stagecraft final. Brutal.”
Sandra Keiser, chairperson of the fashion department and associate professor, was a regular attendee. “It was a semi-annual event, to take my nieces and nephews to the fall and spring performances,” Keiser said.
“The theatre was state-of-the art … In fact, when the play about Helen Keller was performed, the stage had running water [for the pump],” said Sister Georgeann Krzyanowski, Mount Mary’s building and grounds director.
In addition to plays, Kotska Theatre was the platform for many forums. Some of the most recognizable speakers include Harper Lee, author of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” as well as the daughters and sons of historical figures such as Leo Tolstoy, William Yeats and Robert Frost. “I have many memories of listening to speakers in the theatre,” Martin said.
The inspiration and source for the mandatory course, Search for Meaning, was Dr. Victor E. Frankl, psychologist, concentration camp survivor and author of the novel “The Search for Meaning.” In 1984, he stood upon this vintage stage and addressed the student body. Both Lee and Frankl received an honorary Doctor of Human Letter degree from the college.
Once a vital and essential part of Mount Mary, this 750-seat auditorium sits unused. Its history and very existence remain unknown to all but some.
As time progressed, the theatre arts majors ceased to exist in 1981. Mount Mary’s forums became more intimate as the mandatory student body assemblies ceased and the fashion design department, with its annual fashion show, became the only department to utilize Kotska. But, this too, ended in 2010.
Kotska Theatre’s current condition renders it unusable. When the theatre arts major ended, the reason to have full-time staff for the theatre ended as well. In the following years, Kotska’s condition deteriorated from lack of use and regular upkeep.
The 2010-2011 Fashion Show was held off-campus at The Bradley Pavilion and Marcus Center where an environment, mirroring those of professional shows, created a very true-to-life experience for the fashion design majors.
“It [Kotska] is a beautiful space … and emotional attachments are great, but sometimes we have to let go because our reality is different today,” Keiser said.
The reality today is without a major to fill Kotska’s seats, without the traditional ceremonies being held on its stage, and without an extensive renovation of the current space, Kotska Theatre does not meet the current needs of the college. While the college has invited professionals to the theatre for estimates on repair, no plans have been made public for its renovation.
Martin was on campus in 2010 and went to visit Kotska. “I was very sad to see the theatre dark and not in good condition. So much life had filled that place,” she said.
Today the seats of Kotska sit empty. There are no conversations to be hushed before the dean speaks and there are no plays to set the stage. The history, beauty and community of Kotska Theatre live only in the memories of alums and in the archives of Mount Mary’s library.